It was David Cameron’s birthday last week. The big day was actually Friday, but the gifts began pouring in much sooner.
An hour of conference-talk was enough to convince seemingly most of the political commentariat that the Conservatives are now the true guardians of left wing politics. Including the Blairite right, that is pursuing vengeance on the new leadership with such venom that it happily cheers Tory spin over anything Labour now says or does.
Exactly how a party which is working away at, say, the Trade Union Bill – a legislative two fingers up to everything the Left stands for – can possibly be described as left-wing, I don’t know. Birthday treat perhaps.
But if you want to see just how well David did last week, you need to look no further than the speech by his Secretary of State for Health.
The fact that Jeremy Hunt could stand up and with a straight face say that the Conservatives want to be “the party of the NHS” is one thing; that so much of the press believed him and, more importantly, didn’t check that statement against the reality, is something else.
I wonder if it occurred to him that there are currently 13 trusts in special measures, and 33 without chief executives, when he said “there is no greater privilege in government than being responsible for our NHS”.
Even if the Department of Health didn’t lean on Monitor to delay a hideous set of financial figures until after the conference – although it’s been described as “very odd” by insiders and I think I’ll leave it at that – Jeremy Hunt would surely have seen the figures before he made his speech.
He would have known full well that trusts in England went £1 billion into the red in three months, more than the entire previous year, and are likely to be overspending by £2bn by the end of the year prompting Monitor to call this “worst-in-a-generation financial position”, when he mentioned the “resources of a strong economy only a Conservative government can deliver”.
He will be well aware that his government’s policies of cuts to local authorities’ budgets, and as a result local community care, have led to a huge leap in ‘bed-block’ in English hospitals – up 68 per cent in August this year compared to August 2010 – costing the service over £300 million a year, when he said “let’s recognise those working for local authorities to support our vital social care sector and public health programmes”.
When he said “let’s hear it for all 1.3 million NHS staff working so hard in such challenging circumstances”, somewhere at the back of his mind he must have been thinking about the fact that junior doctors are on the verge of striking and that morale throughout the service is at an all time low.
He will have known that mental health funding has been cut in real terms, that 4,946 mental health beds have been axed, and that over 13,000 beds in total have gone since 2010, when he said “if you care for something – as David Cameron always has for our NHS – you want it to be the best” – although he may not have known that his own minister Lord Prior once told a McKinsey executive that “50 per cent of hospital beds could close”.
And did it escape his mind that in July the King’s Fund Quarterly Monitoring Report revealed the worst A&E waiting times on record for the same time of year, when he said “the true party of the NHS insists on high standards for patients in every corner of the NHS”?
The fact that the Secretary of State for Health can stand up and make a speech about the NHS without mentioning trusts’ deficit, not once, nor address the concerns of doctors threatening to strike, is quite staggering. The fact that David Cameron is awarded the title of left wing leader by ‘Labour’ commentators, after an hour of rhetoric, is on a whole new level.
I think it’s time to finally call Cameron out on his claim that he would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”. When you’ve forced trusts to start cutting back services; when you’ve driven trusts from a surplus into the red; when you’ve hacked away at the community framework that supports the NHS; when you’ve reduced the rate of funding increase by three quarters when the population is increasing at the rate it is, and not brought the tariff system up to date, I say you’ve cut the NHS.
And while we’re at it, I can’t let it stand that NHS trusts have ‘created’ a deficit of £1bn, as The Telegraph puts it. Hospitals haven’t suddenly become inefficient overnight – anything but. They’ve all made huge efficiency savings already, yet their deficits have gone up. This hasn’t just happened; the financial crisis is of the government’s making.
I can understand that loyal Conservative tribalist commentators would repeat the lines from the conference. I don’t understand why the Labour right would other than out of pure vindictiveness towards the new leadership. But for the rest of us who care about the NHS and the facts, let’s not buy the spin – David had enough gifts last week.